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3D Printed Fashion: The Shape of Things to Come


John-Michael O’Sullivan charts the rise of 3D printing and  finds that fashion is beginning to embrace its game-changing potential

The first time that I ever heard of 3D printing was the same time I first saw it in action; almost a decade ago, in a small factory deep in the English countryside. There, in the corner of a workshop filled with supersized machinery, lay a contraption that was not much bigger than a domestic computer printer. It whirred away quietly, doing something complicated with magnetic fields and dust particles. As I watched, those particles coalesced inside a clear tube – mysteriously, quietly, painfully slowly – to form an elegantly sculpted model of a table fork. At the time, it seemed like little more than an expensive sideshow gadget. I didn’t realise it then, but I was looking at the future.



The technology, in various forms, has been around for the best part of 40 years. It first emerged in the early 1980s, through innovative digital techniques developed separately by teams in France, Japan and the United States. Back then, it went under a whole host of cumbersome names: stereolithography, photo-solidification, rapid prototyping technology, solid ground curing. But they all boil down to the same, simple yet extraordinary idea: the notion that a computer-generated model can be replicated by compressing dust – or liquid, or polymers – into a three-dimensional object. In itself, like that table fork I was so unimpressed by, the concept may not seem like much. But, applied at a large scale, 3D printing has the capacity to reinvent how we manufacture the objects we live in, and with. And that capacity could well change the world.



The first 3D printers came off production lines in the United States in the early 1990s. But for years, the process attracted little mainstream attention. That has all changed recently, however, as leading brands who have been labouring away behind the scenes to harness this radical technology finally bring their long-anticipated products to light. Predictably, the world of performance sport has been well ahead of the curve. After an eight-year gestation period, the Adidas Futurecraft 4D sneaker is finally hitting mass production this year, thanks to a pioneering partnership with the Californian tech firm Carbon. Nike,not to be outdone, collaborated with the world champion long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge to create the super-light Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite Flyprint, its upper createdfrom a computer-printed lattice formed to the exact shapeof Kipchoge’s record-breaking feet. Elsewhere, people are now living in prototype 3D-printed houses, driving cars with 3D-printed parts, and even receiving transplants of 3D-printed skin. You can buy 3D-moulded ice cream at your local Starbucks, and pick up a 3D-printed mascara brush from Chanel.

The ramifications, from a production perspective, are enormous. In place of multi-stage, labour- and pollution-intensive processes which often take place across multiple facilities, 3D production will allow objects to be formed locally, sustainably and in a manner completely tailored to their end user. Even now, for less than £300, you can buy a basic 3D home printer and produce objects of your own. But while almost every industry you can think of has embraced 3D technology, there’s one notable exception. And ironically, it’s precisely the area where you might have expected it to have been greeted with open arms: fashion.

It is perhaps not that difficult, once you get beneath the surface, to understand the sector’s hesitancies. Fashion’s constant rush towards newness and change is underpinned by a giant global manufacturing industry; one whose core processes (spinning, knitting, weaving, embellishing) have been sped up and mechanised over the centuries, but at root remain unchanged. And beyond that, the industry’s reigning fantasy of itself (as the tortured, genius designer in their ivory tower, presiding over an army of devoted, highly skilled craftsmen) is as powerful as it has ever been. Designers such as Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld and Pringle of Scotland’s Massimo Nicosia have dabbled with 3D in the past, admittedly, but have done so to create hybrids which use printed surfaces as a base for elaborate embellishment or hand-knitted textures. So, while we go about our lives equipped with the latest computer technology, our homes increasingly programmed and our phones packed with apps, we continue to do so in clothes made largely using techniques that are centuries old.


Forward Thinkers 

Something about this new season, though, seemed to finally signal a shift. Unsurprisingly, that change was embodied by Demna Gvasalia, the Georgian-born designer whose reign as fashion’s current Pied Piper shows no sign oflosing its momentum. At Vetements, the collaborative label which made him a star, Gvasalia made normcore 2015’s hottest trend. Since taking the reins at the hallowed Parisian house of Balenciaga, he’s managed to pull off a masterful balancing act between classic couture codes and radical innovation. And that intelligent, ambitious approach has never been clearer than in his latest show, which galvanised the industry’s perceptions of 3D printing overnight.

Critics proclaimed it the start of the revolution. Although, to be precise, Gvasalia’s garments were made using 3D-print techniques, but were not actually made of 3D-printed fabric. Instead, each of his models had their body scanned, and the resulting moulds were used to create sculptural forms onto which the final fabrics – timeless tweeds, houndstooth and velvets – were placed the old-fashioned way. But with a twist; where couture tailoring would conventionally have been formed via a symphony of cutting and sewing, Balenciaga’s new versions needed only a single seam.


For deeper innovation, you have to look further afield, to up-and-comers such as New York label threeASFOUR, whose collaboration with 3D-powerhouse Stratasys created intricately printed weaves, winning them a CooperHewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s National Design Award in 2015. Or to Israeli designer Noa Raviv, whose wireframe-inspired pieces cloak the body in deliberately abstract shapes. Or Chromat, the high-concept label beloved by performers Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, whose partnership with Intel resulted in garments fitted with 3D-printed panels that flex to respond to the wearer’s emotions. 

But there’s one label that sits, quite literally, light years ahead of the pack. Iris van Herpen is a Dutch-born designer who interned at Alexander McQueen and Claudy Jongstra, before founding her own label a decade ago. Van Herpen’s first experiments with 3D printing debuted in 2009, and in the years since then the technology has become an integral part of her spectacular, otherworldly aesthetic. As well as artisan craftsmen, her collaborators include biomimicry artists, MIT researchers, architects and CERN scientists. In her hands, intricate skeletons or bubbling, three-dimensional lattices swirl and undulate as she creates garments that shield the body like armour, rather than clinging to it or draping it as conventional fabrics do.


But most importantly, van Herpen’s clothes look and feel like the future – just as Mary Quant’s miniskirts, or Pierre Cardin’s plastic tailoring, or Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please range once did. Her collections reveal which way tomorrow lies. And with it, the promise of a world where our clothes will be different from anything we can currently imagine. ° ° ° ° ° °



Hero: Schohaja in Collaboration With Travis Fitch, 3D printed by Stratasys. Adidas Futurecraft 4D sneakers courtesy of Adidas via Facebook. Noa Raviv Hard Copy Collection, 3D printing by Stratasys. 3D printed SS18 pieces by Iris van Herpen. 



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